My family recently completed our final year of homeschooling. It was a 20-year journey that began when my first child entered elementary school and ended when my last child entered high school.
One of the best parts of the journey was the family read-aloud. When all else failed—when life was consumed with financial worries, job loss, the death of loved ones or routine craziness to stay focused on rigorous academics—we always made time to read together. It helped us regroup, recharge, and ponder the good, the true, and the beautiful amid life’s messiness.
My youngest is now in high school. My husband and I are both working full-time. It’s harder to find time to read together these days. But we’re not giving up. Even though our family’s homeschooling days are over, our read-aloud days are not. Last year, before my son entered his freshman year of high school, we read “To Kill a Mockingbird” together. This summer, we are reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Whether you homeschool your children or not, or whether they’re pre-teens or adolescents, here are some classic novels perfect for reading aloud as a family. There’s no time like the summer to put away the electronic devices, open a book, and get lost in its pages. It’s a lot cheaper—and better for you—than a trip to Disneyworld.
1. ‘The Yearling’ (1938) by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
“The Yearling” is the tale of a young boy named Jody Baxter who takes on the responsibility of caring for an orphaned fawn in post-Civil War Florida. Much more than just a story about a boy and his pet, it’s a tale of family, community, loyalty, duty, and survival.
Reading it with my children provided opportunities to talk about the different challenges that both parents and children face. It helped my kids learn the importance of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.
In a pivotal scene toward the end of the book, Jody’s father shares these words of wisdom with him:
Ever’ man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. ‘Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but ’tain’t easy. Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin. … A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world. Knowin’ they got to git their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin’. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then? What’s he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.
2. ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ (1961) by Norton Juster
For something completely different in genre, tone, and style, consider “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Often compared to “Alice in Wonderland,” the book is a zany flight of fancy brimming with fantastical places, creatures, and events. The main character—a boy named Milo—uses a mysterious tollbooth to travel to other worlds.
The greatest joy of the story, however, doesn’t come from the plot, characters, or setting, but from the language. It’s full of clever wordplay and can help teach children about idioms, metaphors, puns, and other figures of speech.
It’s also loaded with pithy statements that lend themselves to deeper reflection, such as, “Just because you have a choice, it doesn’t mean that any of them has to be right”; “The more you want, the less you get, and the less you get, the more you have”; and “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”
At the book’s outset, Milo is a young man in dire need of an attitude adjustment. If you have a child who could use one as well, “The Phantom Tollbooth” is for you.
3. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A good choice for teenage readers is “The Scarlet Letter.” The prose may be a bit of a challenge to 21st-century ears, but reading it aloud helps. Set in 17th-century Boston during the Puritan era of American history, the book touches on themes of guilt, responsibility, and appearance versus reality. Its timeless ideas are as important today as they’ve ever been.
Modern sensibilities may scoff at a story about a woman required to wear a scarlet “A” to mark her as an adulteress, but shame is a concept worth revisiting in today’s culture of shamelessness. As it turns out in “The Scarlett Letter,” there is plenty of shame to go around.
A memorable scene in the book occurs when a tribunal assembles to consider whether the main character, Hester, should be allowed to maintain custody of Pearl, the now three-year-old daughter who resulted from her adulterous relationship. To see if Pearl is being properly catechized, one of the ministers on the tribunal asks the child who made her (the proper response is “God”). Pearl answers as any child would:
Now Pearl knew well enough who made her; for Hester Prynne, the daughter of a pious home, very soon after her talk with the child about her Heavenly Father, had begun to inform her of those truths which the human spirit, at whatever stage of immaturity, imbibes with such eager interest. Pearl, therefore, so large were the attainments of her three years’ lifetime, could have borne a fair examination in the New England Primer, or the first column of the Westminster Catechisms, although unacquainted with the outward form of either of those celebrated works. But that perversity which all children have more or less of, and of which little Pearl had a tenfold portion, now, at the most inopportune moment, took thorough possession of her, and closed her lips, or impelled her to speak words amiss. After putting her finger in her mouth, with many ungracious refusals to answer good Mr. Wilson’s question, the child finally announced that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison-door.
Children are children, and people are people, no matter the century.
4, 5. ‘Johnny Tremain’ (1943) by Esther Forbes | ‘Across Five Aprils’ (1964) by Irene Hunt
One of the best ways to make history come alive for young people is to read good historical fiction. “Johnny Tremain” and “Across Five Aprils” are two of the best novels for accomplishing this.
“Johnny Tremain” recounts the story of a young silversmith’s apprentice coming of age at the time of the American Revolution. Johnny sustains a career-ending injury to his hand and must figure out how to make his way in the world without practicing the skill he has spent years acquiring. Tremain encounters mystery, romance, and adventure in a series of life lessons. Real historical figures John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere appear in the novel.
The five Aprils in “Across Five Aprils” refer to the Aprils contained within the years of the American Civil War. Jethro Creighton is initially excited at the prospect of war, but as years pass and he sees the impact of war on his family and country, his view is tempered.
Like many families of the time, the Creightons are divided in their loyalties. The book doesn’t have an agenda. It’s an honest narrative about how the Civil War pitted brother against brother in one of the most painful periods in America’s history. In the third chapter, Jethro’s older brother Bill summarizes the impossible situation in which the country finds itself:
I hate slavery, Jeth, but I hate another slavery of people workin’ their lives away in dirty fact’ries fer a wage that kin scarce keep life in ‘em; I hate secession, but at the same time I can’t see how a whole region kin be able to live if their way of life is all of a sudden upset; I hate talk of nullification, but at the same time I hate laws passed by Congress that favors one part of the country and hurts the other.
Other Excellent Books to Read as a Family
In addition to the novels already mentioned, those that left an indelible mark on me and my children are “A Tale of Two Cities” (1859, Charles Dickens), “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876, Mark Twain), “Winnie the Pooh” and “The House at Pooh Corner” (1926-28, A. A. Milne), “The Hobbit” (1937, J.R.R. Tolkien), “The Screwtape Letters” (1942, C. S. Lewis), “Animal Farm” (1945, George Orwell), “Moccasin Trail” (1952, Eloise Jarvis McGraw), “Charlotte’s Web” (1952, E.B. White), “Carry On, Mr. Bowditch” (1955, Jean Lee Latham), The Narnia series (1950-56, C.S. Lewis), “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” (1958, Elizabeth George Speare), “A Wrinkle in Time” (1962, Madeline L’Engle), “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (1967, E. L. Konigsburg), “Watership Down” (1972, Richard Adams), and “Bound for Oregon” (1996, Jean Van Leeuwen).
Any of these books are well worth the time invested in reading them. Works like these don’t become classics by accident. The rewards of reading out loud together go far beyond the enriching experience of giving one’s imagination over to a story. A family that reads together spends time together, laughs together, cries together, grapples with big ideas, and grows in their understanding of one another and the world.
Reading together as a family slows the pace of life a little. It affirms that there are things worth pondering beyond Facebook notifications, smartphones, the news cycle, and whatever is trending on Twitter. A family that reads together is more likely to produce literate, inquisitive, caring young men and women. We need more of these types of people in the world today.
So, get your family together. Pour your favorite beverage. Turn off any device that flickers, buzzes, blares, or rings. Stretch out on the couch or on a blanket in the grass and start reading.
Allow younger children to draw, move around, or play quietly if that helps them listen. Invite older readers to take their turn reading. Designate a regular time and—if you’ve got the right book—be prepared for the pleas of “one more chapter.” Take a break whenever you want to recap, analyze, ask questions or discuss.
If someone wants to read ahead, let them. If tears start to flow, let them. And, whatever you do, don’t see the movie before you’ve read the book.